Choosing Sunscreens for Sensitive Skin
Updated: Feb 20
If you have sensitive skin, you know it can very frustrating to choose the right skin care products.
No matter how careful you are with looking at labels, you may still develop rashes after using products labeled "all-natural" or "hypoallergenic" or "for sensitive skin." That's because the regulations in the United States on terms like these are very limited. In fact, these terms don't have any actual defined meaning: they mean whatever the manufacturer wants them to mean.
When it comes to sunscreens, choosing the right product for sensitive skin is even harder. That's because there are several different types of allergic reactions that can occur after you apply sunscreen.
Sunscreens can trigger different types of allergic reactions
1. Allergic contact dermatitis (ACD) may occur to the sunscreen chemicals themselves.
ACD is a type of allergic skin reaction. The most well-known type of ACD is due to poison ivy. You come into contact with the plant, and you later see a rash that's right over the areas where you contacted the plant.
With this type of reaction, the rash usually shows up 2-3 days later. That's why it's known as a delayed allergy. The same type of reaction can occur to sunscreen chemicals.
It's not that your skin starts to burn when you apply the sunscreens. Instead, you see a rash that shows up later: usually 2 or 3 days later. (In some cases, even up to a week later.)
A little background on sunscreens first, though. In order to provide protection against ultraviolet (UV) radiation, sunscreens are formulated with either chemical sunscreens or mineral sunscreens. With chemical sunscreens, each chemical only provides protection against a certain part of the UV spectrum. That's why several chemicals are usually used in combination: the combination covers a wider range of the UV spectrum.
Examples of chemical sunscreens include oxybenzone, octinoxate, avobenzone, and others. You'll find these names on the label, under "active ingredients". These chemicals are known triggers of ACD. They're not common triggers, but for persons with a history of eczema or sensitive skin, it may be best to stick with mineral sunscreens instead.
Mineral sunscreens provide UV protection by physically blocking the sun's rays from reaching the skin. That's why they're known as "physical blockers". They act to deflect and then scatter UV radiation. Mineral sunscreens (aka physical blockers) include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These sunscreen ingredients are unlikely to trigger any allergic reactions at all. At the end of this post, I have a few examples of sunscreens that contain only mineral blockers. In the past, these tended to be thicker and whiter. (Think of the old lifeguard sunblock, with the white strip of sunblock across the nose.)
The newer formulations aren't as thick or white, and I'm personally able to use them without anyone commenting on my visible sunscreen.
2. Photoallergic contact dermatitis may occur due to the sunscreen chemicals.
One other type of allergic reaction to sunscreens is called photoallergic contact dermatitis. In this type of allergy, it's the combination of sunlight and the suncreen chemical that triggers the reaction. I've seen this reaction several times. One of my friends had an allergic reaction to her morning face lotion, labeled SPF 15.
In this type of reaction, the sunlight actually causes changes to the sunscreen chemical. This altered sunscreen chemical is what actually triggers the allergic reaction. If you were only wearing the face lotion indoors, you wouldn't have a problem. But if you wore it outdoors, in sunlight, you'd end up with a rash in the areas where you had applied the sunscreen/lotion.
Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide do NOT trigger this type of reaction.
3. Allergic contact dermatitis may also occur due to to the fragrances or preservatives used in the sunscreen formulation.
When people tell me that they've reacted to their sunscreen, I look closely at the formulation. That's because many "sunscreen allergies" are actually reactions to the fragrance additives or preservatives that are used in that particular formulation.
The top triggers I see are fragrance additives. These can be tough to spot. Sometimes you'll see the word "fragrance" in the ingredient list, but other times you won't. That's because there are many other substances (with different names) that can be used as fragrance additives.
The other category that's a frequent trigger of allergic reactions are certain preservatives that are used in skin care products. For those with sensitive skin, I recommend avoiding products that contain formaldehyde-releasing preservatives and methylisothiazolinone. Why these particular preservatives? These are in the top 10 triggers of allergic contact dermatitis. (The list of top 10 triggers is per data compiled by the North American Contact Dermatitis Group, a group of contact dermatitis experts who perform patch testing to diagnose the causes of ACD. Their results are pooled to provide data on triggers of ACD.)
The top 10 triggers of allergic reactions, as compiled by the North American Contact Dermatitis Group, includes 5 ingredients (circled in red above) that are commonly used in skin care products. This includes fragrance additives, formaldehyde, and methylisothiazolinone.
4. There are a number of sunscreen options that do not contain the most common triggers of allergic reactions.
There are a number of options if you're looking for sunscreens that contain no chemical sunscreens, no fragrance additives, no formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, and no methylisothiazolinone. I've listed a few of these options below. (There are many other options also.)
As always, it's very, very important to choose the exact brand name and exact formulation listed. Several of these brands are available in different formulations, so be very careful. Also, product formulations do change with time, so always proceed with caution.
One other note: a sun protection plan is more than just sunscreen. While it may include sunscreen, it also means being careful with the amount of sun exposure, and it also means using sunglasses, hats, and clothing.
The sunblocks listed below contain ONLY physical sunblock ingredients [zinc oxide and titanium dioxide]. They do not contain any chemical sunscreens/ fragrance additives/formaldehyde preservatives/or methylisothiazolinone
SUNBLOCKS FOR SENSITIVE SKIN
**Click on product name for links to online retailers
Note on allergens: All products contain some potential allergens. These listed contain less common causes of allergy. BHT, IPBC [iodopropinyl butylcarbamate], PG [propylene glycol], TR [trolamine]
The Bottom Line: For those with sensitive skin, choosing sunscreens that do NOT contain chemical sunscreens, fragrance additives, formaldehyde preservatives, or methylisothiazolinone is your best bet.
Dr. Rajani Katta is the author of Glow: The Dermatologist's Guide to a Whole Foods Younger Skin Diet. To receive future updates on preventive dermatology and the role of diet, sign up here.